Tuesday, June 30, 2009

And they had Jazzercise!

Were the eighties the worst decade for movies in... decades? The twenties saw the silents reach their apex, the thirties bore the fruits of a perfected studio system that ran well into the early fifties while the fifties themselves began to see Hollywood facing increasing competition from abroad until the sixties, which saw such an amazing output of quality work from Europe and Asia that it put the words "foreign film" in the vocabulary of even non-cinephiles which led right into the seventies which saw a Renaissance in American film.

And then came the eighties.

Nobody talks about the eighties. According to legend or myth, something is supposed to have happened that turned the eighties movies to mush. That something is usually some combination of Star Wars, an improved economy, yuppies, Ronald Reagan, the Moral Majority, Clara Peller, Walter Mondale, Jheri curl, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, MTV, Pac-Man and Jazzercise. Definitely Jazzercise.

So anyway, somehow, the theory goes, all these factors led to filmmakers deciding in unison that they would no longer make great movies. It didn't matter if the filmmaker in question was a great one, because of one or all of the factors above, their art would suffer regardless. And how can it not be true? So many cinephiles say it's true it has to be, right? I mean, so many people say it, people like... um... well, okay, people like me. If you're looking for one of the all time "eighties movies suck" offenders look no further than this blog. I've spouted this cinephile party line for years to the point where it's damn-near a mantra. But is it true? That's up to you I suppose since decreeing a decades worth of artistic output to be either "good" or "bad" is so completely cemented in the land of subjectivity that I couldn't possibly provide the right answer for anyone. For me, however, I can only ask another question: How can the arbitrary cordoning off of years into decades possibly affect the quality work of separate individual artists making films within that given period of time? To answer my question I went to movie sites like IMDB and Netflix and put together a list from a randomly chosen year, 1983. This list contains 30 movies that could reasonably be ranked in someone's top ten at the end of the year. Not mine necessarily (I can't even stomach some of these titles) but someone's list. Here it is:

El Norte
Fanny and Alexander
Local Hero
Return of the Jedi
Risky Business
Say Amen, Somebody
Star 80
Terms of Endearment
Draughtsman's Contract
The Dresser
The Right Stuff
The Year of Living Dangerously
Angelo My Love
Gorky Park
Rumble Fish
Th Dead Zone
The Grey Fox
Trading Places
Under Fire
Christmas Story
King of Comedy

That's a pretty good top thirty. The last one on the list is purposeful placement because that's probably the one I would give the top award too although Tender Mercies, Local Hero, The Right Stuff, The Draughtsman's Contract (released in the States in 1983 but made in 1982) and Fanny and Alexander could easily take it as well. So what's the problem with the eighties? If you go through the other years of that decade you can, as I found, compile similar lists. So is it the bad movies of the eighties? Is that the problem? Is it Porkys, Baby... The Secret of the Lost Legend, Stroker Ace and all those Police Academy movies? Maybe that's it. Maybe it's because the Stallone/Norris/Schwarzenegger action movies started in the eighties and people associate that kind of mindless violence with the total film output of that decade. Or maybe directors like Ron Howard started making movies that felt too slick, too assembly line. Oh no, wait, I mean MTV started making videos that produced directors who then made movies that were too slick. No, no wait, now I remember, it was Robert Zemeckis. It was his fault.

Ah hell, if you try, you can probably use anything as proof that the movies of the eighties sucked. The only thing you can't use as proof are the movies themselves. The second you start listing the bad stuff anyone else can start listing the bad stuff from any other decade to counter it. Which means you're left with the good stuff, and the good stuff from the eighties can hold its own with the good stuff from just about any other decade because let's face it, directors like Woody Allen, Martin Scorcese and David Lynch didn't exactly slouch off during that decade.

The fact is, the movies of the eighties aren't nearly as bad as they've been made out to be, or at least not as bad as I've made them out to be. As I revisit several and look forward to revisiting several more in the coming months I realize it was a pretty good decade for movies after all. So let's cut the eighties some slack, huh? They had their share of dreck but they also had, as evidenced by 1983 alone, some pretty solid fare as well. Where's the beef? It's in the movies, the good ones, and as it turns out, there were quite a few in that decade. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to figure out my Rubik's Cube before my Jazzercise class begins.